Imagine no campaign press buses

… a suggestion from visiting US political journalist John Nichols from The Nation, currently in Conversation with Richard Fidler. How would campaigns and campaign coverage be different if a law was passed saying that no party could provide a campaign bus for the press, that journalists would have to make their own way to cover a campaign itinerary stop, assuming that the itinerary as outlined looked sufficiently newsworthy to them and/or their editors?

Currently, newsrooms have to assign however many journos to a particular candidate’s press pack, where they are embedded within the bubble, and don’t actually know much about where they are going every day other than a note slipped under the door in the morning telling them to be ready by a particular time. They just tag along everywhere the candidate’s bus or plane goes, with no possibility of independent exploration of the background behind any particular location that has been chosen for a stump speech by the party. Here’s a link to a historical photo from TIME magazine taken on the JFK campaign bus in 1960 (see photo 2 of 19), and the caption itself is illustrative (emphasis added):

Photographer Paul Schutzer took this shot of JFK and his sister Patricia Kennedy Lawford (C) during a campaign bus trip through Washington. Schutzer covered the campaign on and off for the entire year, and developed an extraordinarily close relationship with the Kennedys.

It’s not difficult to imagine how such an atmosphere stifles any journalism more investigative than what has been described as “stenography for the powerful”. Back in the studios, where pundits are far removed from the campaigns and just watching the day’s supply of video/audio/print, the job becomes to fill airtime with calling the horse-race, or ranting about the horse-race, rather than examining the issues that people care about and what the policy platforms of all parties mean for those issues. This is how local issues such as the Western Sydney rail link become the major news story of the day when major announcements about technological infrastructure that will define our society for the next century have been made, and which essentially get nothing more than a box ticked on the nightly news report before going once again to discussing the horse-race.

So how do we apply a circuit-breaker to this cozy little bubble, given that we can’t all do a John Stewart on Crossfire? Nichols points out that something like 80% of all news stories in the USA now come from some sort of PR effort, rather than the old tradition of reporters thinking about whether there might be a story out there on some issue that nobody’s currently talking about.

Who wins when PR manages the public discussion? Those who already have power, that’s who.

There will be an MP3 of this available on the website sometime shortly after the program ends. They don’t tend to do transcripts, sadly.

Categories: media, parties and factions

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3 replies

  1. The problem isn’t the bus, its the ownership of the people who are in the bus.
    “Who pays the piper calls the tune” and a bus is not a part of that.
    As you say:
    “Who wins when PR manages the public discussion? Those who already have power, that’s who.”
    We need, , to change the structure of corporate media ownership in this country as a matter of prime urgency and not just for how it effects elections but its constant portrayal of our socity.

    • On media ownership: Nichols made some interesting points on how, despite the corporatist-right’s trope that publicly funded broadcasters are just tools for government propaganda leading inevitably to a totalitarian state, various studies of countries with active and well-funded publicly funded journalism via public broadcasting organisations show that the more government investment there is in public broadcasting, the greater that country’s media diversity with all the benefits of broader perspectives and quality niche journalism that this entails, and that those countries generally have higher rankings for civil liberties as well.

  2. In mind of the “Magic Bus”of the sixties, or a yellow submarine maybe.
    Or, a bit later, a ” Violet Kombie”. What a kool aid test, around the country in a b.o-ey bus filled with journalists: what consciousness, what transcendence..
    The stuff about 80 percent of news being promo feeds from sources not to do with actual news is encouraging.
    Always figured it was much higher, judging by my copy of the Adelaide Advertiser*

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